Sergei Prokofiev: Kijé Suite


Originally composed for the film Lieutenant Kijé, the accompanying Kijé Suite was composed in 1934. This was Prokofiev’s first commission to compose film music. Interestingly, Prokofiev was not an obvious choice to commission for this film. At this point in his life, Prokofiev was living in Paris, where his music was more experimental and exuded dissonance and modernity.

This film commission was a way back into his homeland and a chance to write more accessible music for Russian audiences. The film and the musical score were a big hit when they were shown in early 1934. Despite his obvious lack of experience composing music for film, Prokofiev was confident he could deliver on this brief:

“I somehow had no doubts whatever about the musical language for the film. What is important to me is the era, the internal meaning of each event, the personality of each hero.”

He told the producers to not expect a mere musical illustration meant for the background. Instead, the music for the film embodies the characters, era and themes of the film. The musical language he chose combined elements of tragedy, romance, comedy and melancholy.

The instrumentation is also of much interest. Scored for a full romantic orchestra, Prokofiev also enlists some less-used instruments into the orchestra. Perhaps the most significant is the tenor saxophone, which is utilised in the second movement. It is said that Prokofiev heard the premiere of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro in Paris and had been impressed by his use of the saxophone. 

After the release, Prokofiev compiled the Kijé Suite, which was first performed in December 1934. He worked closely with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra on this suite. The suite has since been very popular in concert halls around the world. Prokofiev’s task was quite the feat, however. The film’s music was fragmentary at best, and was also scored for a chamber orchestra. Prokofiev commented on the process saying:


“It was a devilish job. It gave me much more trouble than the music for the film itself, since I had to find the proper form, re-orchestrate the whole thing, polish it up and even combine some of the themes.”


The Kijé suite was one of the first of its kind, so the composer had to ensure that it would appeal to Soviet audiences potentially hearing concert music for the first time:


“Above all, it must be melodious; moreover the melody must be simple and comprehensible without being repetitive or trivial…The simplicity should not be an old-fashioned simplicity but a new simplicity.”


The Music

Structured into five movements, each section provides themes and a story of what the music represents.


Movement I – The Birth of Kijé

The opening movement begins with a distant cornet fanfare. Tinged with the essence of mournfulness, the fanfare is followed by a bouncy piccolo flute and snare drum military march. The stark difference between the two fanfares creates a dichotomy down the orchestra between the brass and winds.

A horn proclamation leads into another flute interlude. The motif is then mirrored by the winds and strings. The bouncy piccolo often returns between the musical conversations happening across the orchestra. The brass fanfare is associated with the phantom of Kijé and is heard throughout the suite. A reprise of the opening distant cornet fanfare closes this movement.


Movement II – Romance

The main theme of this movement is based on the old song The Little Grey Dove is Cooing. Here, Prokofiev writes an optional baritone voice part, however most recordings now do not use this option. The slow moving strings set the scene at the beginning before the melody is developed using a range of instruments in the orchestra.

After a long development of the first theme, the second theme is unveiled by the tenor saxophone. An unusual choice for a slow lyrical movement, the haunting tenor saxophone leads into the end of this movement as the song tune is restated, but this time accompanied by birdsong from the winds.


Movement III – Kijé’s Wedding

The grandeur of the third movement is set from right from the first orchestral outburst. The ceremonial melody is led by a solo cornet and the winds primarily. The melody is perhaps pompous, but certainly celebratory. The cornet plays cheerful interludes between the orchestral excerpts, which keeps the work light in both texture and humour.


Movement IV – Troika

The most well-known of all the movement, Troika is a popular stand-alone work in concert halls as well as being part of the Kijé Suite. It opens with the principal melody, albeit slow and heavy. The lower brass lead in bringing the orchestra to a perfect cadence before a brief silence.

Out of nowhere the pace runs off, with pizzicato strings and sleigh bells pushing the pace through.The pace represents a fast winter’s journey by means of the ‘troika’, which is a traditional Russian three-horse sled. The main melody is repeated throughout by different sections of the orchestra, from the cellos to the brass. 

Troika is often performed around Christmastime as it harks back to winter travel and celebration. The work comes to a close as they music suddenly slows down as the orchestra come together for the final proclamation of the main theme.


Movement V – The Burial of Kijé

Perhaps the most introspective of all the movements, The Burial of Kijé sees Prokofiev combine previous themes together. Opening with the distant cornet fanfare and Kijé’s motif from the first movement, the music follows into the tune of The Little Grey dove from the second movement. 

The music reminisces Kijé’s imaginary life and is essentially a farewell to the story. The wedding music comes through before the music reaches its conclusion with one more rendition of the distant cornet fanfare. 


Final Thoughts

Sergei Prokofiev’s music from Lieutenant Kijé is bursting with character development, themes, and accessible music. The themes all bundle together for the retrospective finale movement which sees Kijé’s life flash past before ending as the suite started, with a melancholy cornet fanfare. Prokofiev’s use of both comedic and romantic writing makes this suite one of his most popular works to perform for orchestras around the world. 

Some fragments of the movements have been adapted and used for other purposes such as the films The Horse’s Mouth (1958) and Love and Death (1975). The second movement, Romance, was used in Sting’s 1985 anti-war song Russians. The fourth movement, Troika, is the most famous movement and his been used and adapted a number of times for various ensembles. Most famously the theme from Troika was used for Greg Lake’s top Christmas pop song I Believe in Father Christmas. 

Kijé Suite is one of Prokofiev’s most popular and accessible works, alongside his Romeo and Juliet Suite and Second Violin Concerto. With simple melodies, exciting harmonies, this suite is a must-hear in all concert halls!


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

Rob Kusner · 25th July 2021 at 9:52 pm

Please listen to Copland’s Red Pony and Prokofiev’s Lt Kije suites side by side, then share your thoughts. Was it their common heritage from Paris? Or as Harbison once said to me, echoing Stravinsky: “Good composers borrow; great composers steal!”?

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